By Jason Edward Harrington
“These unusual photographs of real animals were made possible only by patient, unfailing kindness on the part of the photographer at all times. Speed is essential in securing these pictures, but very often it is impossible to be quick enough. Young animals cannot hold a pose any better than human babies, and the situation is complicated when they are called on to be precocious in situations naturally foreign to them.”
-Harry Whittier Frees, in the preface to Animal Land on the Air
(Now we’ve made old timey cat meme shirts and hoodies, high quality, available in our Etsy FunnyDripDrop Shop. Also, old timey dogs. No one else had really thought to do that, can you believe it!? Check ’em out, along with other generally clever and funny apparel.)
Silly cat pictures. It didn’t take long after the internet really exploded onto the world scene for silly pictures of cats to come along and infect the entire thing, like a highly malicious, mind-controlling virus. Toxoplasmosis, perhaps. The primary culprits were “lolcats,” which were born somewhere in the bowels of the 4chan forums, one ominous Saturday, or “Caturday,” morning circa 2005, best anyone can tell.
But did you know that extremely silly cat pictures have been around for a very long time? The infamous lolcat memes, with their patented, silly, anthropomorphised pictures of cats aren’t nearly as new as you think. The man who really first nailed the nauseatingly cutesy formula as we now know it was a photographer named Harry Whittier Frees, an American photographer who lived from 1879-1953.
Frees dealt primarily in postcards and children’s books, wherein he dressed cats and other animals in human clothes, posed them in human situations with props, and captioned the photos with old timey versions of things that passed for hilarious back then. Although he dealt with various species, for Frees, it all began and ended with cats.
He was sitting around the dinner table with his family in Audobon, Pennsylvania, back in 1906, when one of the family members passed a paper hat around the table. Each family member took turns wearing the hat, until the hat reached the family cat, at which point Frees rapturously cried “Eureka!”, assembled his old timey camera, and it was thus that silly cat photos were born, for the masses.
And it was Good.
Frees worked hard at his newfound calling in life, and ended up making quite a good living off of his silly animals dressed as people photos. He borrowed his four legged subjects from friends and neighbors, and actually found them quite difficult to work with: for instance, flies were terribly distracting to cats, making for especially difficult photo shoots, and so he had to make sure there were no flies in his studio when doing his old timey shoots. He worked only 3 months out of the year. The rest of the year, he actually spent recuperating from his epic cutesy animal shoots, and meticulously planning the details for his next shoots. As you can see, some of them were, apparently, extraordinarily involved, to the point that they likely did require 9 months of post-shoot recuperation.
How long did it take to get that spot-on school teacher expression re: kitty on the left? Frees, you magnificent bastard.
His exposures were taken at 1/5th of a second, and two-thirds of the negatives had to be discarded. Over the course of his career, Frees became quite the expert in anthropomorphised animal photography. Noting that:
“Rabbits are the easiest to photograph in costume, but incapable ot taking many “human” parts. Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal.”
Two kittens on the left are clearly repulsed by the rabbit. One on the right wants a piece of that casserole. Bad.
“ The pig is the most difficult to deal with, but effective on occasion,” he once said.
(Note that the above caption is Frees’, not mine. Apparently, pigs really are extraordinarily difficult to work with, when it comes to playing dress up. A hard, cold fact that Frees, along with all my ex girlfriends, certainly came to find out.)
Yes, back in the olden days, a photo such as this one–
–-most likely had people laughing out loud, since back then all it took to elicit uproarious laughter from children and simple-minded adults was a picture of a cat dressed as a human asking an amusing question. These days, of course, humor has taken on a much more sophisticated nature and-
–-OK, actually, disregard that last part. Some things never change, it seems, and while Frees is commonly known as the first one to do the nauseating cutesy Lolcat thing in his own, very artistic…
–way, there was one man who was doing something very similar even before Frees. And in a much more profound, epically batshit insane manner. The Cat Master. The Godfather of Cutesy Cat Pictures…
Louis Wain- The Cat Guy
If Louis Wain were around today, he would probably be an internet meme superstar. Born in 1860, Wain was far ahead of his time in realizing one thing: people like absurd pictures of cats. At the age of 23, after dabbling in landscape and various animal-themed paintings, Wain kicked off his career in cats by marrying a cougar, Emily Richardson, a woman ten years his senior.
The two lived together in a cozy little home in Hampsted, north London. Sadly, Emily soon began to suffer from cancer, dying just three years after they had tied the knot. It was during this period that Wain discovered the subject that would define his career. During her illness, Emily was comforted by their pet cat, Peter. Wain taught him tricks such as wearing spectacles and pretending to read in order to amuse Emily. He began to draw extensive sketches of the large black and white cat. He later wrote of Peter:
“To him properly belongs the foundation of my career, the developments of my initial efforts, and the establishing of my work.” (Many of Wain’s early cat paintings are, in fact, portraits of Peter.)
By that point, it was all over. Wain had zeroed in on his forte, and that was it: he painted nothing but cats for the rest of his life, descending into a monomaniacal feline obsession.
Yes, Wain went on to paint cats, all kinds of cats: asshole bourgeois cats-
-everyman soldier-in-the-trenches-of-war cats-
-cats going Paginini on a violin-
-cats going Tiny Tim on a banjo-
cats smoking blunts-
Yes, it was just cats on top of cats for lil’ Wain, and his cat pictures were all the rage in Victorian England, often being used in prints, greeting cards and satirical illustrations.
Wain was a prolific with an easel and a cat, producing as many as several hundred drawings a year. He illustrated about one hundred children’s books, his pussies appearing in papers, journals, and magazines, including the Louis Wain Annual, which ran from 1901 to 1915. His work was also regularly reproduced on picture postcards which are highly sought after by collectors today.
In 1898 and 1911 he was chairman, not surprisingly, of the National Cat Club, and was also an active member of the Society For The Protection Of Cats. Towards the end of his life, he claimed that he had “helped to wipe out the contempt in which the cat has been held” in England. Indeed, Wain was quite the cat crusader, walking around England with kitty-tinted glasses. As Wain himself put it:
“I take a sketch-book to a restaurant, or other public place, and draw the people in their different positions as cats, getting as near to their human characteristics as possible. This gives me doubly nature, and these studies I think to be my best humorous work.”
Having obtained his doubly (emphasis his, not mine: yes, he was losing it) nature, as well as having established cat studies as an official humor category well over a century before lolcats was even an annoying twinkle in some asshole’s eye, Wain somehow managed to descend even further into cat-based insanity, by actually going insane himself and being admitted to a squalid mental institute in London. (Mental illness ran in his family; his sister had been admitted when Wain was 30).
Luckily for Wain, he had developed quite a high powered fanbase by that point, one which included H.G. Wells and the Prime Minister of England– he had developed Cat Powers that came with kitty strings– strings that no less than H.G. Wells and the Prime Minister of England pulled to bail him out of there (no, I’m not making this up .)
Wain’s high profile benefactors had him transferred to a much more pleasant crazy house, the Napsbury Hospital, just north of London, which came replete with -–you guessed it-– a colony of cats. It was there that Wain lived out the rest of his life, presumably in bliss, because really, what more can one ask for than a mental institute to call home, a paint brush and easel, and a colony of cats. Today, his paintings are actually used in psychology classes to illustrate an artist’s descent into schizophrenia.
Many modern day medical experts speculate that Wain’s schizophrenia may have been brought on by toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection often carried and transmitted by warm blooded animals, but most often by…must I even say it? (Cats.)
See his descent into madness, captured, oil on canvas, below…
“During the onset of his disease at 57, Wain continued to paint, draw and sketch cats, but the focus changed from fanciful situations, to focus on the cats themselves.”
Hearing voices at this point.
OK, who gave the cat acid?
“Characteristic changes in the art began to occur, changes common to schizophrenic artists. Jagged lines of bright color began emanating from his feline subjects. The outlines of the cats became sever and spiky, and their outlines persisted well throughout the sketches, as if they were throwing off energy.”
“Soon the cats became abstracted, seeming now to be made up of hundreds of small repetitive shapes, coming together in a clashing jangles of color that transform the cat into something resembling an Eastern diety.”
“The abstraction continued, the cats now being seen as made up by small repeating patterns, almost fractal in nature. Until finally they ceased to resemble cats at all, and became the ultimate abstraction, an indistinct form made up by near symmetrical repeating patterns.”
And finally, all together now, this is the official progression that many psychologists use in classes to illustrate an artist’s descent into schizophrenia:
And that, my friends, concludes this field trip.
Get an old timey cat shirt with a funny caption here. I’m the first to think of combining Frees’ photos with funny captions on shirts, can you believe it!? Well be among the first to rock this new genre of cat meme shirts here.
12 thoughts on “Cute and Crazy Cat Pictures, Late 19th-Early 20th Century: A Gallery Tour”
I’m a dog person really (not that I don’t like cats, just prefer dogs), but these cat pictures are awesome. Very informative post. Thanks for the follow and welcome.
ha thanks. Hey, there were a few puppies in there lol. Thanks you too
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Those are so cute!! I write Cat Haiku!!!! Come check out my blog!! https://kittandditakeonlife.wordpress.com/2023/02/09/late-night-cat-haiku/
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Thanks Kitt. I actually checked out your blog the day you wrote this comment– it’s cool! Other news: check this site Friday afternoon/all weekend. I’ll be posting a piece I co-worked on for OVER A MONTH straight, with a much-bigger-deal of a blogger :). It’s my baby.
I forgot to write me name!! This is Di of Kitt and Di. Good luck with your baby!!
Truly amazing and informative. As an artist I found Louis Wain’s journey with his visual expression of cats into mental illness fascinating.
Thanks Imkling! I’ve been completely failing at noticing when people comment, hence not approving comments. I’m definitely going to change settings to “Don’t have to approve comments before they’re posted” because, well, fuck it. I’d rather have everyone’s comments see the light of day, even trolls, than to have even one kind soul left sad, feeling as though I just ignored them. Other news: check this site Friday afternoon/all weekend. I’ll be posting a piece I co-worked on for OVER A MONTH straight, with a much-bigger-deal of a blogger :). It’s my baby.
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This post was the best thing I read today. THE BEST. Thank you! Back to the writing work that pays bills now… lol
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Ha thanks man. The story behind this article is a long one. It’s actually about 10 years old. But I figured it was time to bring it back.
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I always wanted to do an article with cool, old pieces of eye-catching art (with fascinating backstories) like every few sentences or few paragraphs, just sliding your eyes down the whole thing (and with breezy, fun amd humorous prose guiding the art tour). I found an excuse to do it with these two guys.
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my cat ate my blunt back in the late 80s. stole it from my ashtray. after eating he passed out. he came out ok but it was some good shit so….
haha. Come back and check this site Friday afternoon, smoke up, and just scroll through allllll the photos. lol I guarantee you it’ll be cool. Big post coming Friday.